The best places to eat and drink in Alphabet City (NYC).
A new luxury building was being constructed on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street. The scaffolding that was erected around the site provided shade on one side of the avenue. It was a typical summer in the city, and I wiped my brow one last time before taking cover from the direct sun. As I walked slowly through the screened area, I saw a man standing toward the end, and as I was passing him to my left, recognized his face. With my neck turned toward his direction, he caught my eyes and gave me a nod. I took this gesture as a sign, that he too, had recognized me in return. Almost in unison, we gave each other those smiles which curbed enthusiasm. Nonetheless, a kind gesture received and given by both parties.
Growing up in Stuyvesant Town
I grew up in what is known as Stuyvesant Town, a complex initially built for families of post-war veterans and ultimately opened up to the working middle-class which mostly consisted of Irish and Italian families. It’s a rather large community that stretches 10 city blocks North to South and 3 avenues East to West. The Southeast side of the complex is bordered by what is called “Alphabet City”, and in the ‘70s and early ‘80s had a reputation of being an unsavory part of town. This is the neighborhood in which the man under the scaffolding experienced his childhood.
Alphabet City in New York City
Many decades earlier, the stares we gave one another were not nearly as pleasant as the one most recent. He was from one side of the track, and I, on the other. With irony, our upbringing was more similar than they were different. He is of Puerto Rican descent and I am of Filipino descent, and our parents belonged to the same parish. So, like good Catholic boys, we were forced to go to church which led to unwanted encounters. Being in front of the Lord on a Sunday, however, did not stop the many street fights and stone throwing events between the kids in his neighborhood and those of mine. Alphabet City was made up of a community of mostly Latin descent, and mine, white for the most part. Mind you, this was the height of the “Rock vs Disco Days”, so it was that more this than real racial tension because in reality, we were all practically immigrants, for Christ sake.
The Bodegas in Alphabet City
Underaged, my friends and I would often risk getting our asses kicked, just so we could purchase Budweiser nips (8 oz. cans) from one of the bodegas that had no problem selling alcohol to 13-year old boys. There was always latin music being played loudly from large boom boxes (portable cassette/radio players) and the streets were always filled with broken glass. I learned later, that most of the glass on the ground were from used bottles of crack. In the ‘80s, Crack was an affliction that devastated many inner city neighborhoods in the U.S., not the least of which, New York’s Lower East Side. It was a tough part of town, and we always scooted out as quickly as we came in.
Hard Working Immigrant families in Alphabet City
There were good hard working immigrant families residing in Alphabet City at the time and as the community got stronger, they found a way to clean things up, both literally and figuratively. As I grew older, tensions lessened and I started to feel more welcomed into the neighborhood (as if their welcome was the one in question). I found myself crossing over more frequently, not just for the cold beers, but for some great Latin Cuisine. In lieu of deli counters, most of the bodegas had hot plates of food. Any meat over yellow rice, with some sweet plantains and beans, was more affordable than most boring sandwiches found outside the neighborhood. I would almost always get the stewed oxtail, and with it, a can of “Coco Rico” (a coconut sparkling soda) and two slices of Dulce de Leche candy slices (not unlike fudge). Another facet of the bodega is that it’s also a convenience shop. There was very little you couldn’t find in the bodega. Few places in the world would one be able to find rat poison, pork crackling, and a yo-yo in the same aisle. I became addicted to the character of the neighborhood and crossing the tracks was more exciting than ever.
Loisaida (aka Lower East Side)
When I returned from college in the late ‘80s as a working, young man, morning protocol included buying my breakfast sandwiches at a bodega before heading to my $16,000 a year job. The bodegas were the best place to grab a quick breakfast sandwich. It didn’t matter what social/financial demographic one belonged, it was no secret that the only place to get a proper morning sandwich was at a bodega. The atmosphere inside was convivial, and every morning I would see the same characters which were made up of high power executives, priests, maids, construction workers, cops, neighborhood grandmothers and kids like me trying to get ahead in the world. No matter how diverse the crowd, there was only one language spoken, and that was “Loisaida” (lower east side) Spanglish”. Everybody gave it a go, especially if you wanted your order fast. It was always fun to hear ginger Irish guys trying to roll their “R’s” when they said “gracias”. Bodegas seemed to always make the sandwiches with a finesse that the diners couldn’t replicate. The eggs were always runny, the cheese velvety, and the bacon heavy handed. They were always nice enough to put the ketchup in your sandwich as opposed to leaving those small packets for you to deal with at the bottom of your bag. Lastly, they were faster and less expensive. In those days, at least in my neighborhood, It was not uncommon to get on a subway car filled with people simultaneously eating their breakfast sandwiches and sipping their “regular coffees” (2 sugars and milk). The whole thing was pure theater.
Low-Income Neighborhood in NYC
Though things were getting better and people were starting to get along, Alphabet City was still looked upon as a low-income neighborhood and with the exception of bodegas and hair parlors, very few businesses existed. Once I got a better-paying job, I left Stuyvesant Town and really didn’t think about Alphabet City all that much. Typical rear-view mirror stuff.
Alphabet City and Stuyvesant Town Today
Recently, I returned to reside in Stuyvesant Town with my family and after being away for nearly 30 years, I found out quickly that Avenues A, B, and C along with the streets in between have become an area of New York in which real estate is much sought after. It also happens to be considered one of the best social and culinary areas of town in which to take part. Gentrified? Yes. However, I feel it’s core, which was built on diversity, still, exists and has not been overly compromised. Bodegas aren’t as prominent as they once were, though there are still a smattering. However, due to food inspection regulations, even in the ones that still exist, the hotplates of fine Latin offerings are a thing of the past. You can still get a good breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee though.
A neighborhood full of good food at fair prices
In place of the bodegas, there are plenty of exciting eateries and hangouts well worth exploring. The line of flavor, from what was then to now, is short. Meaning that it’s still an exciting part of town to find different assortments of food. Many of the businesses have made an effort to preserve a pure and simple profile. Bottom line, just good food at fair prices, and a good time. Along with me, my wife and daughter absolutely adore the neighborhood. Here are some of our favorites:
TASTE OF NEW YORK
There are certain food offerings that are considered quintessentially New York. Three of which are pizza, hot dogs, and pastrami sandwiches.
Baker’s Pizza at 210 Avenue A
For Pizza, get your slices at Baker’s Pizza (210 Avenue A). They don’t stray from the original New York Style too much, which is much welcomed, as it seems that every pizza joint opening these days are making gourmet or Neapolitan varieties. Being a New Yorker, I can tell you, there’s a difference. Baker’s makes a pizza that is meant to be eaten by the slice and eaten folded over (The long way) with no fork or knife usage. The crust is thin enough as to be crispy but strong enough that the integrity isn’t compromised by the sauce, cheese, and toppings. The element that separates Baker’s from many pizza shops, is the use of quality ingredients; which becomes instantly obvious once you take your first bite. My daughter and wife prefer the pepperoni slice. I, for one, have always been partial to plain slices. They have a $5 daily special that’s hard to pass up, which includes a plain slice and a pint of cold draught beer served in a plastic cup. Also, for a bit of fun, look at their Polaroid wall where you’ll find photos of some of the locals in some interesting poses (some nude).
Crif Dogs at 113 Saint Marks between Avenue A and First Avenue
Hot Dogs from the likes of a New York City food cart and establishments such as Papaya King are great. However, if you’re looking for a weiner with more to offer, try Crif Dogs (113 Saint Marks Place). Here you’ll find non-traditional choices such as the “chihuahua” a bacon wrapped hot dog with avocado and sour cream (an ode to a taco), and the “Philly tube steak”, appointed with melted cheese and onions. I’m a traditionalist and prefer the “new yorker” a classic all beef frankfurter. However, when I do stray, I order the “crif dog”, a handmade pork and beef variety. What makes their weiners so special, is the larger than usual size (I couldn’t help myself) and the crisp casing (which I believe is arrived by grilling it in butter). Feeling like you may want a bit of a tipple, there is a phone booth in the shop, which is a secret passageway to a speakeasy bar, appropriately named, “Please Don’t Tell”.
Harry and Ida’s Meat and Supply at 189 Ave. A
Harry and Ida’s Meat and Supply is a quirky little place. Upon walking in, you’d think you were in a general store in the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the shop, which seems mostly decorated with reclaimed wood from an old barn, you’ll find pickled and smoked items, a selection of dried flowers, along with tins of spices and seasonings. Their smoked eel sandwiches are famed, and their rotating schedule of smoked delectables, which include items such as racks of ribs and salmon, keep you wanting to try new things. But in reality, most everyone comes here for the smoked pastrami sandwiches. Served on a soft hero with pickled cucumbers, dill, and mustard. The portions are hearty and made with care. Grab a seat at the small wooden counter looking out onto Avenue A and take in the “flavors”.
AMERICA IN EVERY CORNER
Whitman’s (406 East 9th Street)
The burger trend doesn’t seem to want to end; and why should it? Few food options are more classically American and satisfying. In the neighborhood, leading the crowd for best burger and best staff is Whitman’s (406 East 9th Street). The suggested burger combinations are vast and original. A unique offering is the PB&B which is a short rib blend patty with applewood bacon and peanut butter on a potato bun. There are great side options as well, such as fried pickles and fried shishito peppers. For fans of literature, there are photos and books scattered throughout honoring American Poet/Journalist, Walt Whitman.
Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter (94 Ave. C)
Keeping with the classic American cookery is Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter (94 Ave. C). Though “quail” by definition, Bobwhite serves, what I believe to be, the best fried-chicken in Northern Territory. Speaking of territories, the business has decided to establish itself on Avenue C, which for all intents and purposes, is considered pioneer country. It took balls to open here, but when the type of chicken they serve is what it is, people follow. In people following, so have other businesses, and Avenue C is now a true destination. The capacity is small and the setting charming. So get here early if you’re planning to have it for dinner. You’ll have better luck with lunch if you can swing a few hours in the middle of the day. I’ve already spoken about the chicken, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sides. The Mac and Cheese and the Curried Collard Greens get honorable mention.
Double Wide (505 East 12th Street)
Double Wide (505 East 12th Street) is a play on “trailer park” culture. The place is quirky, and what I would imagine the inside of a trailer home to look. The place has a comfortable vibe. It also happens to serve up some great southern inspired food, ranging from chicken fried steak to a crawfish boil. The beers are always cold, and the service down home. If you are a fan of the HBO miniseries, Game of Thrones, come here on a Sunday night and join its lower east side legion of fans to view.
THE WORLD’S FLAVORS
There is an excessive amount of Italian and French eateries in the City of New York. Alphabet City has its share. If this is what you are looking for, try Gnocco for Italian (337 East 10th Street) and for French, dine at Le Village French Petite Bistro (127 East 7th Street). However, when visiting Alphabet City, it almost behooves you to try something different. After all, it’s cultural diversity that has always given this area character.
Haile Ethiopian Bistro (182 Ave. B)
Experience flavors from Africa at Haile (182 Ave. B). This is possibly the best Ethiopian restaurant in New York City. Run by two sisters, the ambiance is nothing short of being invited to a house party. No utensils needed here as the cuisine is served true to custom, on a big plate for all to share with the use of their hands. Though there is meat on the menu, it’s the vegetables that are the star. Depths of flavor is achieved through the use of fragrant spices that are typical of the eastern region of Africa, such as cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, and cloves. Eating with the use of hands brings those at the table closer, and the dining more eventful. A great place to bring good friends and family.
Very Thai (186 Ave B)
Thai cuisine is having a moment, and it’s about time. Of the Southeast Asian countries, Thailand, in my opinion, has the most diverse flavor profile. Very Thai (186 Ave B) does a good job in representing the range of which I speak in its menu. There is the quintessential Pad Thai noodle dish for those who want to keep it safe (for the record, excellent). For deeper flavors, northern Thai dishes such as Kao Soy noodle soup, a curry based soup with influences from neighboring countries such as Laos and Burma is a good option for those searching for something a bit more unique.
Cuautla Morelos (438 E. 9th. Street)
What would a neighborhood be without a restaurant eating joint? Well, Alphabet City certainly has many to offer. We like our Mexican food in a simple way because some of our greatest memories visiting Mexico include being in front of local taco stands, whether it be in a metropolis like Mexico City or coastline, such as Playa del Carmen. Our choice in this neighborhood is such a place, named Cuautla Morelos (438 E. 9th. Street). The eatery can only seat 8, but many order at the register and eat outside the storefront. Favorites are the tacos, made with homemade tortillas with a choice of filling. We find the best to be the Al Pastor (shredded roast pork) and the Mexican sausage (chorizo). They also make their own guacamole and sauces in-house. The experience doesn’t disappoint.
Thursday Kitchen (424 East 9th Street)
Our favorite restaurant for cuisine that is a little less ordinary is Thursday Kitchen (424 East 9th Street). This charming little restaurant produces delectable French and Spanish Influenced Korean food. The plate presentation is tapas style, meant to be shared by the table. The aesthetic of the restaurant is as clean and unexpected as the food. Chef Hyun’s execution puts forth dishes that offer an element of surprise to the palate by taking aspects from typical Korean and integrating international influences from France and Spain. Their drink menu is equally as creative, and the staff helpful and energetic. The vibe, excellent on any given night, especially on a Thursday with the weekend looming.
My daughter and wife Love Ice Cream. Alphabet City has excellent places in which to support.
Mikey Likes It Ice Cream (199 Ave. A)
Mikey Likes It Ice Cream (199 Ave. A). Mikey is a big and lovely black gentleman. He grew up in the Lower East Side and created this business to not only purvey artisanal ice cream but also to employ kids who may otherwise get into trouble as he once did. The ice cream creations here are excellent; and the names which they are given, make ordering fun. There are cultural references when naming the flavor creations, one of which is BLACK STREET. On the menu board, it reads, “Every chocolate ice cream lover likes the way Mikey has worked in the chopped chocolate malt ball pieces and the mini sweet chocolate chips. Play on player. No diggity. No doubt.”
Alphabet Scoop (543 East 11th Street)
Alphabet Scoop (543 East 11th Street) not only serves excellent ice cream made on the premises, it is also a job and life skills program for teens. The program is designed to prepare teens with the skills needed to advance in their school and work endeavors. Teenagers receive classroom instruction and work under a shift supervisor in the retail store. I think this is pretty cool, and for the record, if you’re a mint chocolate chip fan like me, look no further.
Big Gay Ice Cream Shop (125 East 7th Street)
For those who have an affinity for soft serve ice cream, Big Gay Ice Cream Shop (125 East 7th Street) is your place. Ordering here is simple. The flavors are always vanilla, chocolate, swirl, and one flavor of the day (last I visited, it was birthday cake). What it lacks in flavor options is equaled by endless choices of toppings. Not feeling like putting a combination together? Well, don’t fret. On the board are house blends. One of the more popular ones is called, Salty Pimp (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, and chocolate dip). The place? Very Happy.
Ray’s Candy Store (113 Avenue A)
If you are searching for authentic kitsch, the king of all things sweet is Ray’s Candy Store. This place is an anachronism. If you weren’t on Avenue A, you’d think you were in Coney Island when reading the menu. It serves hot dogs, New York style egg creams, French fries, beignets and soft served ice cream, just name a few. The joint has been across the street from Tompkins Square Park since 1974 when it was less appetizing per se. Ray, well over 80 years of age, is still behind the counter. He’s usually joined by an attractive tattooed young lady to help him dole out snacks and smiles to everyone that comes through. An institution I hope will never be replaced.
Roost on 222 Ave. B
A good cup of coffee can be found on every block. Starbucks has entered the fold with one their Reserve properties. Say what you will about gentrification, but everyone seems to be quite happy it has arrived. However, this article isn’t to highlight a business that is ubiquitous. That’s where a coffee house named, Roost, comes in. What sets it apart is that it doesn’t feel so much like a cafe at all. The white subway tiles is reminiscent of an establishment that would be plating out raw oysters and drinks instead. It’s vibrant and keeps one awake as opposed to prolonging sleep. It mirrors New York well.
We have a teenage daughter who likes dining in places that have character and good food. She likes places that remind her of her travels. She also has a pretty extensive palate, and when out with friends and their kids (who often have a more limited taste bud) a compromise often needs to be made. This often means, ending up in a generic place with a menu that offers just about everything under the sky, poorly.
Raclette (512 East 12th Street)
Raclette (512 East 12th Street) is one of those places that can save those type of situations. This rustic eatery offers an atmosphere that is Left Bank chic and a menu that include delectable tartines, raclette, and the best Croque- Monsieur in the city. A kid of any age can appreciate dining and spending time here.
A PLACE TO TALK AND HAVE A DRINK
Drop Off Service (211 Avenue A)
There are plenty of bars in the neighborhood, so I’m only going to mention one – Drop Off Service (211 Avenue A). It’s simply a good drinking establishment. Though the place only serves alcohol, children are welcome to hang with their parents, which reminds me of pubs I frequented in the UK. There is a long wooden bar, two large windows from which daylight tends to shine, and plenty of comfortable seating throughout. Due to the fact that it’s Alphabet City, the atmosphere is lively with lots of chatter and characters. You’ll have your typical overweight group of men (mostly fathers from the neighborhood) glorifying their past before the future dries up and the occasional person looking to mend his broken dreams with some good craft beer. If you like to people-watch while enjoying a well-poured drink, this is your place. It also has an excellent Happy Hour that lasts until 8 pm. My wife and I often sit and have a pre-dinner drink here after a day’s work; and when the sun sets and the candles are lit inside, few places are more inviting. (Insider tip: They allow you to bring in your own food. A popular place in which to get good take-out is a Zaragoza Mexican Deli, where a nice little Mexican Gentleman doles out whatever his wife has made for the day).
WHERE TO BUY YOUR OWN DRINK
Convive (196 Avenue A)
My daughter has two salespeople on both sides of the family; one being my wife, and the other, me. We love good service and people who understand their brand and stick behind their product. Why, because we have done it all our lives, and understand the value of it. It brought us great delight when we stumbled into Wine and Spirits shop named, Convive (196 Avenue A). Jesse Warner-Levine and his pals opened themselves up to the neighborhood. Their selection is not “run of the mill” and priced very well in comparison to the market. The service is always convivial and the place spotless, yet not void of character. If you are in search of a “wine guy”, As I was, and never want the feeling of drinking alone, just come here. Before you know it, you’ll have a friend that understands your palette; moreover, understands you. Now, that’s a neighborhood wine shop!
On my way back, I saw that he was still where I had last seen him. As I approached, he gave me a nod, and this time I extended my hand. We shook and greeted each other more formally. His life, still no further from mine; also having returned to the neighborhood after having lived away for some time. The sun had finally let up, and his daughter (about the same age as mine) whom he had been waiting, ran over to him. We pleasantly said our goodbyes and I crossed the street where there was once a track.
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